Market Reports

Indian coffee’s deep roots

It all started with seven coffee seeds smuggled into India from Yemen in the 17th century. From these seven seeds, one of the world’s earliest coffee industries would blossom into one of the largest coffee producing nations in the world. Despite still being better known for growing tea, India’s coffee has a rich history and it is one that continues to grow. With production growing slowly but steadily, India’s coffee output is expected to continue to climb as new regions have been added to the country’s coffee producing map in the past few years. While exports of premium Indian coffees such as single estate, single origin and top-quality washed Robustas are picking up, so is coffee drinking at home. So much so that India’s instant and soluble industry imports between 1.2 million and 1.4 million 60-kilogram bags every year. This is to keep up with both export demand and local consumption, which is close to 2 million bags per year. “We have identified a few markets that we believe will grow fast and offer Indian coffees a very good scope of growth. Australia is one such focus market for us,” Chairman of the Coffee Board of India (CBI), Jawaid Akhtar, tells Global Coffee Review. “It’s already an important market for Indian coffee, but still there is huge potential of expansion that needs to be tapped. India has some 400,000 hectares cultivated for coffee across 17 different producing regions. Total annual production has grown from between 4.5 million to 4.8 million 60-kilogram bags a decade ago to between 5 million to 5.3 million bags in the past few crop cycles. The CBI expects that figure to continue to climb gradually to about 6 million bags over the next five to 10 years. This will increase to between 6.2 million to 6.4 million bags in another 15 years as new regions start entering the production cycle. “Traditionally coffee is grown in the southern part of India with the three states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu producing about 95 per cent of India’s total annual coffee production,” Akhtar says. “The rest of the regions have been relatively small in output, but during the past 15 years we have gradually added 60,000 hectares under coffee cultivation in non-traditional areas such as the Araku Valley in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Koraput in Orissa and in the North-Eastern India, mostly in Andhra Pradesh. “Andhra Pradesh is a harsh area for growing coffee. The yields are low and the farmers come from tribal communities who are new to coffee farming, so we work hard to train them. The coffee cultivation in this region is, by default, organic,” Akhtar adds. “But even with these conditions, coffee still yields the best economic returns to the people of this area. Before getting into coffee, the growers here never had any fixed or stable income. They had to rely solely on picking and gathering fruits and forest products and selling them in the local markets.” While yields in India today have managed to improve to an average 11 to 13 bags of green coffee per hectare – which puts India in the top 10 for productivity in the world of coffee – the average yields in Araku Valley are as low as three to four bags per hectare. “The growers here are very small and still need a lot of training, but they grow good quality Arabica coffee with medium body and medium-to-sharp acidity,” Akhtar says. “Arabica coffee has a good demand in in European Union, especially in Germany. Now this coffee is being exported to Australia as well.” To many in the coffee industry, especially in the vast group of producing countries struggling with already high and rapidly increasing labour costs, productivity below 15 to 18 bags per hectare is no longer considered economically viable. Small-holder coffee growers across the world have increasingly left land in a state of semi-abandonment because even with good yields the average land units have become too small to generate an income a family can survive on. In India, however, coffee still provides a way out of poverty and the CBI has seized that opportunity to ensure a share of the market that gradually will become available as other coffee growing regions go out of business. There is no denying that the name of the game in coffee today is quality. That is why the CBI has made major efforts to improve the quality of Indian coffee sold to the export market, whether it be from the tiniest tribal producers or the big estates and plantations. From established grades such as Plantation A and Plantation AA, single estate and single origin fully-washed or natural Arabica beans, to natural, semi- or fully-washed Robusta coffees from India, all grades are happily finding new markets with roasters across the world. “We have had a very big focus on quality improvement for quite a long time now, and we are really starting to see the efforts of this paying off,” says Ashok Kurien, President of the Specialty Coffee Association of India and himself a grower in the Chikmagalur region in Karnataka State. “Like in the case of the Australian market, we have always been exporting coffee from India here, but it’s only in the past few years that we really have seen the whole specialty market picking up and now we are even starting to see all the single estate coffees coming in here, so that is a wonderful development.”
During the first Melbourne International Coffee Expo held in 2012, Indian producers, exporters and the CBI joined forces and held the annual Flavour of India cupping competition with what industry officials agree was “overwhelming” response from Australian roasters. “Every single lot in the auction was bought on the spot by different roasters in Australia and we were extremely happy with the results,” says Kurien. “This is also why this year we signed up as exhibitors [at MICE2013] as we realised what a great opportunity this show is for us, as a producing nation, in order to reach roasters directly with our coffees.” From the core traditional specialty blends such as Monsooned Malabar and Mysore Nuggets, the Indian flavours have grown to 17 distinct names and regions over the past decade, and that is in addition to the single estate coffees. Elephant, tiger and monkey conservation coffees are also gaining popularity, due to the unique fact that 100 per cent of all Indian coffee is produced under heavy shade, the majority also through 100 per cent organic practices. “We have had coffee for over 300 years and Indian coffee has already been appreciated here in the Australian market since many years,” says Akhtar. “But we are very happy and enthusiastic to be here in Melbourne this year because there is a lot of development in the local coffee market here.” 

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